By Jason Morehead
My wife has worked hard to undo the damage, but at this point, I’m pretty sure that college — or, to be more specific, the relative poverty that I experienced during college — has permanently ruined my eating habits. As a mostly broke student, I couldn’t afford much food. Breakfast was usually a can of Mountain Dew, lunch was another can of Mountain Dew plus a bag of chips, and dinner was a batch of Bisquick pancakes. (I still remember the relief when I discovered one could make Bisquick pancakes with water instead of milk, since I rarely had milk.
As a result, hunger is something I’ve grown used to, and as such, is something I’ve become able to ignore longer than most, it seems. Of course, I can appreciate a large, hearty meal, be it my wife’s pot roast, a thick steak grilled to perfection, or a fine dinner at one of Lincoln’s many excellent restaurants. But ultimately, and no doubt due to my college experience, food often feels more akin to an inconvenience for me — something to deal with as quickly, easily, and cheaply as possible.
Based on the above, I’m probably a good candidate for Soylent, a food substitute that has been generating waves among “lifehackers” with its promise to alleviate worrying about food. Heaven knows that something like this — a relatively cheap food substitute that can be ordered online and prepared in minutes — would’ve been a godsend for college me. Indeed, the idea of easily prepared food that is cheap and healthy is fairly appealing to me even now when I think of how productive I could be — at home, at the office, etc. — if I didn’t need to concern myself with real food anymore.
That certainly seems to be the goal of Soylent founder Rob Rhinehart, who was recently profiled by Lizzie Widdicombe in The New Yorker. The profile is fascinating, if only to catch a glimpse of how something so sci-fi-esque became reality, and to see how food and nutrition can be approached like an engineering or software problem. What’s more, Rhinehart has some admirable goals beyond just giving lifehackers another way to live more efficiently — i.e., fighting world hunger:
Rhinehart’s real goal, however, is more ambitious: the company has been testing an omega-3 oil that comes from algae instead of from fish oil. Eventually, Rhinehart hopes, he will figure out how to source all of Soylent’s ingredients that way — carbohydrates, protein, lipids. “Then we won’t need farms” to make Soylent, he said. Better yet, he added, would be to design a Soylent-producing “superorganism”: a single strain of alga that pumps out Soylent all day. Then we won’t need factories.
Soylent-producing algae would make food a little like that: there would be no more wars over farmland, much less resource competition. To help a village full of malnourished people, “you could just drop in a shipping container” full of Soylent-producing algae. “It would take in the sun’s energy and water and air, and produce food.” Mankind’s oldest problem would be solved. Then, he added, all we’d have to do is fix the world’s housing problem, “and people could be free.”
Rhinehart’s goals may seem overly idealistic, especially when you consider how much we’re still learning about the human body and what is healthy or not. (Consider the growing number of fad diets out there, or the constant stream of conflicting announcements concerning the health benefits of this or that food item, with red wine being a recent example.) Others are a bit more acerbic: Eli Dourado, for instance, tweeted “Given the primitiveness of nutrition science, eating Soylent for every meal is probably about as smart as bloodletting.”
But for all of the potential that Soylent (and other food substitutes, like Ambronite) represents — and I believe they do have considerable potential — there are some things about them that give me pause. As unimportant and inefficient as “real” food can often seem, I realize I’m not quite ready to give it up.
How could Soylent affect the community that so easily develops around food?
To be fair, a DIY community has developed around Soylent, but it’s primarily devoted to the sharing of Soylent recipes, like Soylent that replicates the taste and texture of chocolate milk or Soylent that is more compatible with certain diets. But the community that I have in mind here is that which so easily develops around the actual breaking of bread (so to speak).
For years, my wife and I participated in a weekly community dinner with several other households in our neighborhood. We all took turns hosting and being responsible for the entire meal, whether it was a home-cooked feast or freshly delivered pizza. The meals were enjoyable but the real benefit came from carving out a couple of hours each week to share life with friends. Sharing that was created and necessitated by both the preparing of food for others and the shared consumption of food prepared for us.
And then there’s the potluck, arguably one of the Church’s great contributions to society. Each church family brings a signature dish: the pastor’s wife’s brownies, a potato salad that’s been passed down from generation to generation, even a humble jell-o salad or three. Each family is contributing a little bit of their legacy and resources to the whole, and while the food oftentimes becomes a second thought to fun conversation with friends, said conversation would simply not exist without that tupperware bowl full of jell-o.
Such experiences of community are the exact opposite of the efficient consumption that Soylent represents. “Real” food encourages, even forces us to slow down both in its creation and consumption, and as we slow down, we find it easier to converse and share more than just our dishes.
Of course, let’s not forget about “foodie” culture, i.e., those communities that have sprung up around what Wikipedia describes as “an ardent or refined interest in food and alcoholic beverages,” be it food trucks, farmers’ markets, CSAs, or even the cooking classes offered by the local Whole Foods.
Could such a sense of community emerge from the shared consumption of Soylent? Perhaps. Community is a rather fluid concept. But when the food in question is all about convenience, efficiency, and ease-of-use, it’s hard not to see how it might be antithetical to the time and effort that any semblance of community usually demands.
Can Soylent encourage gratitude and humility in the same way that “real” food can?
The simple physical act of eating forces you to slow down and become aware, if perhaps only subconsciously, of the time, effort, and sacrifice that the food before you represents.
If you ever join my family for a meal, you’ll often hear this said during grace: “Thank you for this food and for the hands that prepared it.” We say that to remind ourselves that food is a grace that we have often done little to deserve. We certainly didn’t grow or harvest the food and it may very well be that we didn’t cook or serve it (especially if we’re at a restaurant). The nutrition, beauty, flavor, and satisfaction inherent in the food on our plates come to us as a gift, first from the people responsible for its many stages of preparation, and ultimately, from the God from Whom all blessings flow.
But such humility can go beyond the food on our plates, and to the deeper rhythms in creation. My wife has a Mennonite cookbook that advocates using foods that are naturally in season. The goal isn’t simply to promote healthy living by eating fresher fruits and vegetables, but rather, to cultivate humility by trusting in God and what He’s ordained as part of the natural order of the seasons.
This is something that runs counter to our current food culture where, thanks to technology, you can have any food any time of the year. As wonderful as it is to enjoy (relatively) fresh fruit in the dead of winter, what does this separation from the natural cycle do to our sense of reliance, trust, and humility? Though it may contain everything you need to be healthy, it’s hard to imagine something more divorced from the natural order of things as Soylent. This unnatural-ness doesn’t mean that Soylent is inherently wrong (a naturalistic fallacy), but it does contain a trade-off that is worth considering.
Can Soylent offer a satisfying aesthetic experience?
One of my favorite passages in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe occurs when the Pevensie children sit down with the Beaver family for a meal. Lewis describes the table setting in great detail, from “a jug of dreamy milk” to a “a great big lump of deep yellow butter in the middle of the table.” The main course is freshly caught fish (“there’s nothing to beat good freshwater fish if you eat it when it has been alive half an hour ago and has come out of the pan half a minute ago”) and for dessert there’s “a great and gloriously sticky marmalade roll.”
Lewis describes the meal with such enthusiasm that it leaves your mouth watering. While it’s a delightful scene in and of itself, it actually ties into what Lewis meant when he wrote “God loves matter; after all, He invented it.” For Lewis, humans are not simply souls wrapped in flesh: we are physical creatures as well as spiritual creatures.
Consider the smell of freshly baked bread, or the taste of a well-grilled hamburger, or the way your grandmother’s apple pie melts in your mouth. These sensory aesthetic experiences are not trivial things. Rather, they’re even more good gifts from God inherent in the food given to us — blessings to our creaturely status that we are right to enjoy.
In her New Yorker piece, Widdicombe describes Soylent as “watered-down pancake batter.” And while there are numerous variants of Soylent available from its DIY community, the simple fact is that it’s still a liquid base with a diminished aesthetic experience. Which is by design, as it’s solely about the nutrients the body needs and the best way to get them there. Again, there’s a trade-off here worth considering, as we trade seemingly “inessential” yet enlightening and even transcendent aesthetic experiences for efficiency and productivity.
At one point in the New Yorker profile, Rhinehart describes non-Soylent food as “recreational” food. Now it’s true that we tend to approach food with a considerable lack of intent or concern, which is something that Widdicombe discovered when she tried Soylent for a period of time. (“Soylent makes you realize how many daily indulgences we allow ourselves in the name of sustenance.”)
However, food is more than mere recreation — more than just something we use to blow off steam or kill time. Similarly, it represents more than mere sustenance. Food can represent community, love, concern, grace, gratitude, humility, hospitality, and family. And it contains a bounty of wonderful experiences (smells, flavors, textures). Good food (and yes, sometimes even not-so-good food, like a greasy bacon double cheeseburger) nourishes our souls as much as it does our bodies through what it represents and requires — something that can be easily overlooked and lost in our pursuit to be more efficient.
Jason Morehead (Associate Editor) lives in the lovely state of Nebraska with his wife, three children, zero pets, and a large collection of CDs, DVDs, books, and video games. He’s a fan of Arcade Fire and Arvo Pärt, Jackie Chan and Andrei Tarkovsky, “Doctor Who” and “Community,” and C.S. Lewis and Haruki Murakami. He’s also a web development geek, which pays the bills — and buys new music and movies.